Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday put a bundle of fresh initiatives on the table to strengthen bridges with Asean countries and raised hopes that negotiations for a free trade pact with the South-East Asian regional bloc would be concluded within the next four months.
Singh set a target of trade worth $50 billion with Asean countries by 2010, asked for more flights to Asean countries under its proposed Open Skies regime, proposed setting up joint networks on climate change and health care and a special programme for regular exchanges among parliamentarians.
The prime minister called his proposals to raise trade, tourism and people-to-people contact at the Sixth India-Asean Summit as building blocks of the architecture to create the “arc of advantage” that will fructify India’s vision of an Asian economic community of an integrated market and linked by road, rail, air and shipping services.
There are 97 projects in which India is partnering with the south-east Asian regional grouping. Indonesia — that is coordinating the projects for the bloc – told the summit that 47 projects had already been completed. Singh also assured the 10-member Asean grouping that India shared the common political will to reach an agreement over the free trade agreement at the earliest.
The trade deal, at last count to be finalised by July this year, has been slipping on four agricultural commodities, specially palm oil, pepper and coffee. Asean negotiators, most notably Malaysia, want India to make larger cuts for palm oil and bring the duty down to 35-40 per cent.
Exports from Asean member countries to India have grown by over 65 percent this year, crude oil accounts for a significant part of this increase.
“The most striking achievement of our engagement so far is that the target of bilateral trade of $30 billion that we had set for ourselves for 2007 has already been achieved… This shows that India is a willing partner in the integration of our economies, and is committed to free trade,” Manmohan Singh said.
The prime minister also referred to cultural links with the region, commending Singapore for the exhibition “On the Nalanda trail: Buddhism in India, China and southeast Asia” that emphasises on cultural links that India has had with the region.
“We welcome proposals that revive interest in our ancient civilisational links and common heritage,” he said.